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Friday, March 13th 2015

20:15

Radioactivity in my Body

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Really tired
  • IN THE BACKDROP: SpencerJaycob on Street Jelly

Third day; third attempt. On Wednesday evening I tried to write a blog entry, and I got quite a lot written. The problem was that, by the time I quit, I had put together several pages concerning the isotopes of the element Technetium. It was fascinating stuff as far as I’m concerned, but probably not of general interest. Then yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, I started over, but realized after a time that what I was writing, regardless of how good it may have been, was embedded in a dialectical maze of stream-of-consciousness. Marcel Proust might have appreciated it, though I doubt it, but I definitely couldn’t expect my faithful readers to wade through a lengthy article, perhaps entitled Mes Pensées Perdues. Thus, another try ...

... and, now I'm writing this a couple of hours after the above paragraph and most of the material below, another failure. General interest will just have to skip it. 

I've streamlined the information on Technetium, but doing so took as much time and energy as I have, and I'm going to post this now, because I'd rather start with something fresh the next time. An additional factor is that Bravenet has done a thorough revision of its journal entry format, which is incredibly nice, but I have needed to familiarize with it, and now I'm eager to see how it actually will come out. 

So, let me tell you about the last few days, which, as I mentioned in the last entry, would be taken up by dentist visits for June and cardiac testing for me. I told you that June usually has a really hard time in the dentist’s chair, and her experiences on Monday and Thursday weren’t great. We must say, though, that Dr. D, the dentist, is being more aware of her particular needs than any other one she’s had previously. I mean, who wants to hear, “That couldn’t possibly hurt!” when it hurts? Dr. D actually studied up on Wednesday evening on how to approach a patient with June’s dental arrangement.  

The weather has finally risen above freezing. We’ve had a good amount of rain, resulting in flooding in some counties of Indiana, but not ours (yet). However, there is an incredible amount of mud everywhere.

If over the last few days you have noticed that my giving off a warm friendly glow, the reason could be that I had been injected with a radioactive element. It happened in conjunction with the two-day cardiac test on Tuesday and Wednesday. I thought it was just going to be a treadmill stress test until Monday evening when I glanced at the doctor’s orders and found a word that I had to look up because it was not familiar to me. The word was "Cardiolite," and it refers to a preparation of the radioactive element Technetium. So, at that point I realized that radioactive imaging of my heart was a part of the test, which gave me a (totally unnecessary) strange feeling. I can tell you that the results of the purely stress part  of the test came out fine, but I’m still waiting to hear or read the results of the radioactive aspect. Seriously, I didn’t glow, though if I had been near a Geiger counter on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning, it would have detected a small amount of radiation in me. The worst part of the procedure was having to stay off some of my medications and all forms of caffeine for several days. Unsurprisingly, I wound up with a pretty bad headache by Tuesday evening, which remained at a mitigated level through Wednesday. 

I wanted to put the results of my internet study of Technetium in a table alongside other material, but since I changed my mind and am not adding any further material, I'll leave it as a list in the main text. 

Fun Facts about Technetium

  • Its symbol is Tc; its atomic number (number of protons in the nucleus) is 43.Thus its formal abbreviation 43Tc, with the atomic number as a subscript to the left. But everyone who knows about Tc should probably know its atomic number anyway.
  • Its existence was predicted by Dmitri Menedleev (1834-1907), the first person to put together a functional (i.e. accurate) periodic table. 
  • Tc is the first element in the periodic table that has only radioactive isotopes, no stable ones. Isotope designations refer to the atomic mass of an element. Cf. Carbon, atomic number 6 (6C), has the isotopes Carbon 12 (stable) and Carbon 14 (radioactive)—hereafter 12C or 14C. The notation for an atomic mass is a superscript to the left.
  • Technetium was the first element in the periodic table, as well as in history, to be almost entirely the product of synthesis; hence its name, which means “artificial.” It is usually a by-product of the fission of Uranium (235U) in nuclear reactors. (A few traces of 97Tc, found at some natural radiation spots on earth, are an exception.)
  • The isotope of Technetium with the longest half-life is 98Tc lasting a venerable 4.2 million years. That expression means that it would take 4.2 million years for one half of any given mass of Tc to decay.
  • There are different ways in which Tc emits radiation. The end product depends on the process. It can be an isotope of Molybdenum (42Mo) or Ruthenium (44Ru)
  • The isotope of Technetium used for medical testing is 99mTc; the "m" stands for “metastable,” which means in this case that it does not decay into another element, but into another isotope of Technetium, namely 99Tc.
  • 99mTc has a half-life of ca. 6 hours. It gives off gamma rays, a form of electromagnetic radiation, as it decays into 99Tc. Almost all of the 99mTc will have gone through this transition within 24 hours.
  • 99Tc has a half life of ca. 210,000 years. Its process of decay releases negative beta rays, which means that certain neutrons turn into protons, electrons, and anti-neutrinos. Its end product is 99Ru.
  • The above point does not mean that I will have 99Tc in my body for the rest of my life, even though the life span of my present body will most likely be less than a compounded 210,000 years. Presumably I will have excreted all of it within a few days. Thus, just as with Moses, the glow—if there had been any—would fade.
6 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.

Monday, March 9th 2015

23:41

10 Questions on Buddhism

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: As explained, INY
  • IN THE BACKDROP: Josh of the North on StreetJelly

First, an irritation: I don’t get very many comments for my blog entries here on Bravejournal; but that's not it. Most of the discussion, if there is any, winds up taking place on Facebook, and that’s great. However, I do get an incredible amount of spam on this blog, and that's become a real annoyance. I’m afraid I’m having to go to a system of screening comments. Please feel free to comment here, and I will bring your insights to light asap. The “funny” thing is that over the years, many good-faith comments have gotten clogged up for a time in the spam filter, while French-Canadian soothsayers and Malaysian luggage sellers (and much worse) have gotten a free pass until I caught their inventive supplementary material. I have a list of maybe fifty or more internet addresses that I have blocked, but now there is one company that either uses lots of people in different locations or has lots of different computer lines because they continue to insert their questionable contributions with new address numbers. I can’t stop them—except by using a comment moderating system.

*****

The last ten days or so have not been easy for some reason. Both June and I have felt drained. StreetJelly has been a good motivator for me, but on the whole I’ve just been down both physically and psychologically. In technical terms, I’m calling it “idiopathic non-specific yuckiness” (INY). “Idiopathic” means that we don’t know what causes it. “Non-specific” means that it isn’t limited to a particular location or a single identifiable symptom. “Yuckiness” can be roughly translated as “Crumminess” or “Ickiness.” -- This year it’s June’s turn for long-range work by Dr. D, our competent dentist. We visited Dr. D on the outskirts of Indianapolis today (Monday). Tomorrow and Wednesday I have to undergo some cardiology tests at the hospital; and then on Thursday, it’ll be off to Dr. D’s for June’s teeth again. Dental visits are the purgatory of June's life. I also need to mention that my dad in Germany is suffering from a rather severe case of the flu and is being taken care of by a very nice couple who are members of the church that my dad started quite a while back. Prayers are definitely appreciated.

*****

Be sure not to miss my regular StreetJelly set this coming Thursday evening at 9 pm Eastern Day-light-savings Time. The theme will be “Chip-Kicking Songs.” I have the feeling I’ll be in the mood for them at that point. If you don't know what a chip-kicking song is, come and find out. (Hint: Rule out products made of potatoes, plastic, or wood.)

*****

I’ve tried once before to do what I’m about to do, but didn’t follow through. I’m getting a lot of questions that either need or deserve long answers, which at times has meant that I wound up spending my limited physical energy and time on them at the expense of writing a blog entry. So, I’m going to try to combine the two. I will ask permission to do so for privately asked questions, obviously keeping the questioner’s name anonymous. If the questions are publicly posed, there shouldn’t be a problem with a public answer anyway. I’ll still keep the name of the questioner anonymous--unless it’s obviously a “handle” anyway.

The following set of questions was sent in relation to the video “Basic Teachings of Buddhism,”  which I contributed to the website Dharma2Grace.net. Everything else is explained below.

Dear DHOC!

Thank you for your good questions concerning Buddhism. Before starting to try to answer them, I need to make a couple of very important points. As I mentioned in my description of this video, it is actually a part of a larger website, Dharma2Grace.net , which constitutes 1) an attempt to provide accurate information on Buddhism for Christians and 2) a means of establishing communication with Buddhists so that they may take a serious look at Christianity. Thus, a lot of your questions and many more are actually answered on that much larger website, which goes into a lot of details as well as the various schools of Buddhism.

Consequently, you need also to realize that I am not a Buddhist, but a Christian. As part of the larger website, in order to make discussion between Buddhists and Christians meaningful, we are trying to give as accurate a description of Buddhism as possible, and this video is a part of that effort. So, it does not stand alone and should not be treated that way. If you go to the page on the website that is labeled “Basics Beliefs,”  you will find that there is a similar video on basic teachings of Christianity. In fact, it is also right there on YouTube. One has to house a video someplace on the Internet, and so some of them are on YouTube, but they should actually be watched in the context of the whole site. Still "Basic Teachings of Buddhism" has taken on a life of its own, and a number of Buddhist groups have even embedded it in their websites, which makes me feel good in so far as it seems to make it pretty clear that what I’m saying is in fact true with regard to Buddhism, but I really wish that people would watch the counterparts concerning Christianity as well. They are easily as important — or even more important from a Christian point of view. So, whenever you say in your questions, “as a Buddhist,” my answer has to be in terms of “if I were a Buddhist.” However, I have studied Buddhism, its Scriptures, and its practices for a long time, and I’m quite confident that what I am saying concerning Buddhism is correct.

Now to your questions:

1. Did the Buddha perform miracles for his followers on earth? Let me make sure that we don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. We can affirm that there was a historical Buddha, though we do not have a lot of reliable information about him, certainly less than we have about, say, Jesus or Muhammad. Still, there’s no good reason to doubt that in the sixth century BC a person called Siddhartha Gautama (also known as Sakyamuni—“the Wise Man of the Sakya Clan”) was a real man, who taught the basic content of Buddhism based on his own religious experience, and who gathered a multitude of disciples. The further we move in time away from his life, the more the stories of his life expanded and became embellished. (There’s an important contrast between Jesus and the Buddha here; the gospels were written within a few decades of Jesus’ life, as opposed to the lives of Buddha that arose centuries after him. ) These embellishments included various scenarios in which the Buddha was said to have performed out-of-the-ordinary feats, which we might call “miracles,” although that’s probably not an appropriate term.

From the customary perspective, “miracles” are events in which God acts directly within his creation. Since in Buddhism the various traditional Indian gods, let alone the true God, are not all that important, Sakyamuni’s actions must be interpreted as “magic.” By that word I mean “the manipulation of spiritual forces,” as I explained in an entry not too long ago. In later accounts many magical actions are attributed to him as well as to some of his disciples. Also, many of them would come more under the heading of “special effects” rather than healings and tangible helps.

So, we can illustrate another big difference between the Buddha and Jesus, which I related a while back. This very poignant contrast is found in two somewhat parallel stories concerning Buddha and Jesus. In Luke 7:11-16, Jesus encountered a widow whose son had just died and raised him from the dead. In Buddhism there is a story of a woman, named Kisa Gotami, who also had a son who just died and the only thing the Buddha did, because that’s all he could do, was to get Kisa to see that she must stop being attached to people, even to relatives such as her son, so that then, when they pass away, the suffering will not be as great.

2. If you were a Buddhist would you believe that you would be with Buddha once you are dead? The short answer is “no” There are many different schools of Buddhism, who, I would say, differ among each other even more than Christian denominations, and, thus, they sometimes hold crassly different views on various topics. But one point on which they all pretty much agree is that when you die there are basically two options: One is that you will be reincarnated and continue to live as a new person animal or spirit, and this process could go on for ever and ever, depending on the kind and amount of karma that you accrue for yourself. The other option is that, if you happen to be reborn as a human being it will be possible, under ideal circumstances, for you to attain the state of Nirvana (though note the differences brought up in the Mahayana schools). Nirvana is not being with Buddha, but is a state in which everything that you have associated with your personhood up to now no longer exists. Many Buddhists insist that it is not synonymous with “nothingness,” but it is certainly not something to which actual words can be applied in a meaningful way. At a minimum, when you are in Nirvana, you are totally disconnected from this world, and there are no personal relationships, not even with the Buddha, in any form that could be expressed meaningfully.

As long as we’re on the subject let me clarify that, contrary to the understanding of many Western people nowadays who think of Buddhism as some kind of “recreational religion,” the consequences of your karma, according to Asian Buddhism, are very serious and possibly quite severe. A lot of people including a number of folks who have written comments on the YouTube site, have said that they prefer Buddhism because in Buddhism there is no such thing as “hell.” Well, for one thing truth is not determined by our preferences. Just because someone doesn’t like hell does not mean that it does not exist. For another, the fact is that Buddhism does, in fact, have a very solid view of hell as one of the stages of life in which you may wind up spending possibly billions and billions of years due to your karma. Unfortunately, many people just have no idea of how serious the teachings of Buddhism actually are, and that merely meditating at your convenience will neither give you merit, let alone enlightenment, nor make you a true Buddhist, just as going to church on Easter Sunday in order to show off your new clothes does not make you a Christian.

3. What are the do’s and don’ts as for Buddhist male or female followers? There are many obligations and prohibitions in Buddhism, depending on the schools and their geographical locations. In general, Buddhist laypersons are expected to abide by the “Five Precepts,” as mentioned in the vido, and then there is a basic expectation of living a virtuous life in more general terms, which I can’t possibly describe in all of its detail here. Please, again, see the sections of Dharma2Grace, as well as my accounts of travels in Buddhist countries, e.g, Thailand or Taiwan. In the more traditional versions of Buddhism only a monk who has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of enlightenment will be able to attain Nirvana. All others, if they good to lead good lives, may become a higher order being in their next life, perhaps even someone who can become a monk and find enlightenment, but for the most part all that is open to them is the accumulation of merit. For some of the traditional differences between men and women in Buddhism, I need to refer you once more to these particular sites.

4. If you were a Buddhist, would you see those who don't follow or believe in Buddha as sinful and wrong? In theory, people who are not Buddhists are seen by Buddhists as still on the way to the full truth. The fact that they are not Buddhists by itself is not seen as sinful, but it would be interpreted as the consequence of having been sinful in previous lives. So, if I were a Buddhist I should be completely tolerant of all people who don’t share my personal views, viz. Buddhists who hold different versions of my understanding of Buddhism as well us of non-Buddhists, and many Buddhists claim that this attitude has been universally true for them. The real truth of the matter is that Buddhism is no more tolerant than any other religion, and that much blood has been shed over the millennia not only in battles against non-Buddhists, but also between different schools of Buddhism.

5. If you’re a married couple under Buddhism and you get a baby, do you have to pray for your child and give your child to Buddha? Ultimately, each person is responsible for himself or herself. Depending again on the particular school of Buddhism, there are various initiatory ceremonies that children may be put through. “Giving the child to Buddha” would not really capture the idea behind such a rite. Rather, it should be seen as a step in raising the child to live by the principles of Buddhism.

6. If you were a Buddhist, what would Jesus be to you? Please see the article on the page written by Stuart Redi on the differences between Jesus and Buddha.  Many Buddhists try to make a case that in some bizarre way, Jesus was a Buddhist, and some have even tried to go so far as to say that Jesus and the Buddha were different incarnations of the same person. You can hold to such a theory only if you ignore the differences between their lives and their teachings. In other words, inventing such identities has no merit whatsoever. Saying something is true does not make it true, and that truism also applies to those Buddhists who make the stupendous claim that Jesus was a Buddhist.

It may be a good idea here to point out that there are some very basic fundamental differences between Christianity and Buddhism. In Buddhism the main purpose is to provide us with the knowledge necessary to escape from the potentially never-ending cycle of reincarnations and to find refuge in Nirvana. In Christianity, Jesus came to earth to teach the righteousness of God, of which we all fall short, and to die and rise again in order to make atonement for our sins so that we could be reconciled to God. These are totally different concepts and so, Buddha was not a pre-Christian, nor was Jesus a Jewish Buddhist. In my view, Buddha was a wise person who latched onto an interesting idea that arose in the context of his culture, but he missed out on the basic reason for problems in the world, namely our sinfulness and alienation from God, whereas Jesus is the son of God incarnate who came to earth as a Redeemer for all who have faith in him. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast!

7. If  you were a Buddhist, would you have religious leaders e.g pastors, priests and popes? The organization of Buddhism really depends on the schools, and, again, geography. There is usually at a minimum the difference between monks and lay persons, but in many schools, such as Tibetan Buddhism there are hierarchies, as seen, for example, in the Dalai Lama, who could be viewed, by means of a heavy tour-de-force as a kind of "pope." Temples of (Japanese) Pure Land Buddhism and of most branches Nichiren Shoshu have priests. I can’t forego mentioning, though, one time when I took a class to a Pure Land temple, and the priest introduced himself by saying, “I’m a Buddhist priest, whatever the h*** that is supposed to be.” His background was in Zen.

8. If you were a Buddhist, would you believe in Satan, the devil, demons and evil spirits? If so, how do you cast out evil spirits? Do you believe in witchcraft and necromancy in Buddhism? As I already indicated with regard to the Buddha’s “miracles,” yes, Buddhism oftentimes includes elements of the occult, particularly in the so-called esoteric schools, such as Tibetan Buddhism or the Japanese Shingon school. I don't much care to go into further specifics on this matter.

9. Would you offer tithes and offerings? What percentage of your income must you provide? Where would you pay? Yes, making offerings is considered to be an important way of earning merit. It’s not so much a matter of giving a percentage of your income, but doing whatever you can. Then, the more you do, the greater the merit that you achieve. There is a real conundrum here. It is considered to be an act of merit to give something to a monk or to a temple. Rich people can give a lot, and therefore can earn great merit. Poor people don’t have much to give, and they may even not be able to give anything. Consequently, in this regard, they are in a much worse position to bring about better karma for themselves than rich people. In a Christian context, we would think that the purpose of being a monk might be to help poor people. In many forms of Buddhism, monks do help people, but, paradoxically, by giving them the opportunity to give offerings to them (the monks). The reasoning here, as in other South-Asian religions, is that if people cannot make donations (or are suffering in other ways), they must have incurred bad karma in a previous existence. So, they will just have to live with the fact that they cannot improve their karma much in this particular life either.

10. Would you have a Holy Bible? Buddhism has many writings that they consider to be Scriptures. The oldest, sometimes called the "Pali Canon," a huge collection of books, may contain teachings that go back to the Buddha himself. Later schools of Buddhism recognize various other writings, called “sutras” as holy books as well. A particularly famous example is the Lotus Sutra, which is well known and revered by a number of schools of Buddhism. Still, it is not possible to say that there is one book or collection of books that all Buddhists accept as inspired writings in a way similar to the way in which Christians agree that the Bible is the main source of divine revelation (including those Christian groups who add certain traditions).

I hope that I have answered your questions at least sufficiently to motivate you to do further readings, including the websites that I have mentioned. Buddhism is becoming a powerful force in our culture, far more so than many Christians are either realizing or are willing to realize. We need to become educated on Buddhism so that we can confront its teaching knowledgeably and not on the basis of preconceived notions. —

These replies are rather sketchy, and I would really urge anyone who sees an opportunity for constructive criticism to pursue the websites and my writings before calling my attention to generalizations of which I'm already all-too-painfully aware.

Pictures tomorrow hopefully.

3 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.

Monday, February 23rd 2015

20:53

Relating to God, part 5c

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Okay.

I really try not to turn this blog into either a medical diary or a weather journal, but when things get weird, I don’t want to leave them out either. Right now the persistence of the cold weather is, in my opinion, noteworthy. Here is a table of the predictions for the rest of this week, the end of February. The degrees are, of course, in Fahrenheit.

 

Mon

Tues

Wed

Thurs

Fri

Sat

High

13

25

22

15

15

23

Low

-4

12

-1

-6

-3

14

 

Then on Sunday, March 1, it's supposed to warm up and climb all the way to 41. We'll see. That's what they said about this last weekend as well, and it didn't turn out that way. As the local people say everywhere you go, "We seem to be having unusual weather this year."

Me on StreetJelly*****

Once again, I would like to extend an invitation to join me on StreetJelly.com on Thursday night at 9 pm.  The program will be a potpourri of songs, and I’m planning on unveiling the StreetJelly Blues (provisional title), which I wrote yesterday afternoon while watching the Daytona 500. Requests, particularly ahead of time, are welcome.

*****

Speaking of Daytona, yesterday’s race was incredible; much of the time the cars were running three abreast. The Daytona Speedway is a large track, where the cars, as they are set up presently, attain speeds over 200 mph (322 kph). In the past, as the race proceeded, there would usually be two lines of cars, racing side by side, drafting behind the leaders in front. Obviously, you could get out of line and pass the car(s) in front of you, which happens quite often, but you would do so at your peril. If you got caught in the middle of the two lines without a Joey Logano Daytona 2015drafting partner, you’d probably lose a lot of positions pretty quickly. For that matter, for cars to attempt to go through the turns three abreast had been fairly risky. This year, three abreast was the norm. The reason given was that this year there were no technical changes mandated for the cars, so the crews could tinker with last year's specs to the point of near-perfection. The picture almost looks like a parade lap with Joey Logano's machine as the pace car. But it actually depicts full-speed racing.

In comparison to open wheel race cars (such as Indy cars), stock cars can run much closer to each other. In the former, if two cars should touch while they are side-by-side, chances are that two wheels would come together like two gears, and the effect would be that one or even both cars would go flying. Since in stock cars the wheels are protected, you get “door-handle to door-handle” racing, so that cars may even touch each others’ sides without serious damage. I remember in an ASA race a number of years ago two drivers named Mike Eddy and Scott Hanson were racing side by side around a track for fifty laps or so, with neither one of them giving an inch. Yesterday, it was “door-handle to door-handle to door-handle.” Congratulations to Joey Logano for the big win!

*****

In the last entry I tried to make the point that many people confuse miracles, which God gives at his discretion, with magic, by which human beings supposedly have acquired the correct technique to influence the spirits or gods or God to perform supernatural feats. In magic, if I were to pray to God and ask for a miracle under the right conditions, the miracle should happen. So, unbelievers sometimes challenge Christians to either produce a miracle or, at a minimum, specify the conditions under which we can expect a miracle. That's asking for magic, not a miracle, and you can't fault the Christian for not being able to control God so as to do magic tricks with his power. To be sure, there are miracles, and God answers prayers, but it is not possible for us to constrain his will.

 

Magic

Miracles

Prayer

The human being is able to apply the proper technique so that spirits or gods will do what the person is asking for, including events that we would consider to be miracles.

God’s direct intervention in events in his creation. His personal free actions supersede the usual patterns according to the laws of nature or our expectations. The occurrence of miracles is at God’s pleasure, and we cannot specify when he brings about a miracle.

Our communication with God, based on our understanding of his word, the Bible. In accordance with his plan, God will respond to our prayers, but not necessarily by giving us what we want. Most importantly, we affirm that we are secure in God’s hands, even in troubling circumstances.

If it’s okay with you, I’m going to leave that statement about prayer alone for the moment so that we will not to loose track of the main point completely. Let’s go back to “Emil’s” assertions and respond to him by looking at the various components of his statement. Remember that Emil is a fictional individual, but I’m sure any active Christian reading these lines has heard them multiple times before, as I have. Using a fictional person gives me the freedom to write more directly, and perhaps a little more harshly, than I would in interacting with a real person.

 

I like Christianity.  It’s a nice religion.  I’m glad it gets people to love others and to help them, and I’m sure that a lot of people find meaning in it.

Emil, this beginning already shows us that your fundamental understanding of Christianity is in need of correction. It does not reflect what Christians themselves hold to as the meaning of Christianity. You seem to see Christianity pretty much on a horizontal plane on which people care for each other, presumably because they are emulating the love of God by loving other people. I hope that Christian communities are characterized by genuine love, and many, though clearly not all, fit that description. But positive human relationships are only the consequence of the far more important restoration of a broken relationship with God through Christ. Thus, the vertical precedes the horizontal. Emil, you are commenting on the truth of Christianity in general terms, but you do not mention anything about Christ dying on the cross as atonement for your sins. Apparently you are limiting God’s function simply to providing good things for people, and, thus, you are missing the main point.

My problem is that it doesn’t work.

Emil, there are quite a few other people who have made that statement to me and have meant it in the same way as you do. God did not take away a particular problem that they had, and, thus, Christianity did not “work” for them. But, whether I’m talking to you or a confirmed atheist or an adherent to other religions, I must stick to the beliefs that reside at the core of Christianity, namely, as I said above, the gospel of redemption. So, when you say that Christianity doesn’t “work,” strictly speaking you would be saying that Christ’s redemption was a failure, which is a very odd statement to make (though some cult leaders, e.g. Sun Myung Moon, actually have made that claim). I realize that this is not what you have in mind. You, along with various other people, are complaining that Christianity has not eliminated the hardships from your life. But that is something that we are not promised anywhere.

If Christianity were true, wouldn’t God make sure than none of his children would have to suffer?—or at least that they would suffer less? I mean, even if for some reason there has to be some evil in the world, couldn’t God be doing at least a little better job?

Emil, here you are bringing up the conceptual problem of evil, which truly is an important issue. For more thoughts on that subject, please read my lengthier Thoughts on the Problem of Evil  as well as, say, chapter seven of No Doubt About It. In our conversation here we are looking more on the subjective side of the issue. Let me tell you that, as far as I’m concerned, Christians should feel genuinely troubled by all of the evil and suffering in the world. God has created us with that sensitivity, and so we should be experiencing the tension between our belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God and the reality of evil. But, Emil, think about this: if God really has all of those infinite attributes that result in a conflict between what we know of him and the reality of evil and suffering in the world, then the correct inference must be that God is in the process of eliminating that evil. In fact, only an infinite God is able to do so. Thus, the very same properties of God that give rise to the tension also provide confidence for a resolution. I’m afraid, though, (and I feel bad saying so, even though it's necessary)that you’re not really thinking along such broad lines. I get the feeling that for you, as for so many other people, the definition of evil seems to boil down to not getting what you desire, a point that you make pretty clear in what follows.

Emil, your prayer wasn’t all that small. You were asking for a miracle. We’ll come back to this matter in a moment.

The other day, I was on my way to church; you’d think God would want me there to worship him.

Emil, you can’t make bargains with God. He is the sovereign Lord of the universe, and you are his creature. Miraculously (if I may use that expression here), he loves you; in fact he loves you so much that Jesus paid for your sins in his death on the cross. Furthermore, if you are a Christian he dwells within you and is changing you into a new and better person. But all of those things come from him by his love and grace, not as a response to a bargain you have struck with him. If I may take recourse to one of my favorite medieval thinkers, you are exhibiting what Meister Eckhart called a “merchant mentality,” by which he meant that many people think that they can undertake business-like ventures with God. "God, in exchange for my doing this and that, I expect you to do that and this."

It doesn’t work that way; the merchant mentality really is no different from magic. You think that God owes you thanks for going to church. To be really honest, we sometimes make a big deal about whether a person is within a designated church building for a minimum amount of time on a Sunday morning, but I’m not sure that God cares all that much about where you sit at that time. He does not need your worship as the deities of other religions do, in which the deities are believed lose power if they do not receive their daily portion of attention.  God wants our worship as long as it is an expression of our submission and gratitude to him and heartfelt praise of him. If it were possible to bribe God to do something for you, and all it amounts to is that you sit in a church service, you have picked about the lowest level of payment I can think of.

But no, my car was really low on gas, and I kept praying that the Lord would make it last to the next gas station.  That would have been such an easy thing for him to do, and I was really sincere.  I told God that if he would make the gas go all the way to the station, I would definitely believe in him and never, ever doubt his existence again.

Ducktor Gas OfferEmil, you are right when you say that making your fuel last longer than it normally should is definitely a small thing for God to do, though it would be a miracle. You even raised your offer to God. Not only would you have worshiped him in church, you even would have believed in him and his existence for the rest of your life. And you stressed your sincerity in proposing this deal to God.

But, Emil, you are forgetting that God has already laid out the principles of having a relationship with him. There is plenty of evidence for his existence in the world around us (and again, I can’t be more specific here since this entry must come to an end somewhere). He has said in his word that anyone who comes to him in acknowledgement of their sinfulness, relying on Christ and his work alone for atonement, will become his child. It’s an astounding offer from God, and, if we can understand it at all, then only as an expression of his love and grace. But you don’t seem to take God’s offer seriously. You counter his invitation to salvation by proposing that you will deign to believe in him in exchange for a tank of gas. Can you see how far off the mark you are? God has extended his invitation, which for your own reasons apparently doesn’t suit you. Instead you are trivializing him and your status as fallen creature by thinking that you can pass judgment on his existence if he fulfills an absurd wish of yours. I feel sad for you, but God is not going to give you a special deal on terms that you dictate to him.

But a mile from the station, the engine sputtered out, and so did my faith.

What faith, Emil? It doesn't appear that you had any faith in God. Maybe you were brought up under circumstances that stuck the label of “Christian” on you by default. Perhaps you were truly sincere in the test you proposed to God. However, in what you are saying I don’t see any evidence that you really understand what faith in God entails.

Please hear me out. It’s not unusual for Christians to go through times of doubt; in fact, I think that those periods are often opportunities for further growth. How one can find one’s way through such dark periods depends on the circumstances, particularly on an understanding of what caused the questioning to begin with. For all that I know, Emil, you may even be going through such a period yourself, and you’re covering up your much deeper concerns with that superficial challenge to God. But, it doesn't look that way, and I’m quite sure that the chances are very low that your doubts will be cleared up by giving God an ultimatum: either he will give you undeserved gasoline or you will not recognize his existence.

Emil, please study the Bible. Get weaned off the idea that you can come to God on your terms. Recognize your status as a fallen creature and the impossibility of your redemption by starting out by extending conditions to God. Become aware of the reality that the very same God, in comparison with whom you and I fall so short, is inviting you to become his child on the basis of your faith in the work of redemption done by Jesus Christ. You don’t have to think up ways of getting God’s attention; they're only going to exacerbate your alienation from him. Instead, just accept him by trusting him and relying on him, not on yourself. I can’t promise you free gas or other exemptions from real life, but I can tell you that God has promised us eternal life. There’s some educational value in learning about how you ran out of gas and God wouldn’t give you a miracle. But I must say that his offer eternal life is far too important to let it ride on such a small non-event.

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Friday, February 20th 2015

21:09

Relating to God, part 5b

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: ok

So much for things warming up a bit towards this weekend. If we should actually get above freezing, it’ll be just a smidgeon for a very short time tomorrow (Saturday). The forecast is for snow and a high of 33°F. I have a Dr.’s appointment for early tomorrow morning, and I hope that the slick stuff will wait until I’m home.

*****

The weirdest thing happened last night after I finished my set on StreetJelly.com. I was done at 9:59 pm, which only gave me a minute or so to turn off the switches, unplug the peripherals from the laptop, take the computer downstairs, and start watching “Elementary” on TV while filling out my list of cover songs. Since it had been Bob Dylan night, I also needed to extricate myself from the harmonica holder, a process that requires the temporary removal of my glasses. So, I quickly undertook the necessary procedures, reached for my glasses on the desktop where I had set them down—and they weren’t there. With all the clutter and various cords, I couldn’t feel them, and none of the blurry patches that I could see added up to the overall impression of eye glasses.

Well, I unplugged the computer, grabbed a couple of other things, and descended the stairs to the (present) living room. Having deposited my load on a couch, I told June that I had to go back upstairs to the library and hunt for my glasses. And so I did. I looked as well as I could, crawled, groped, and explored, all without success. How could I lose my glasses within a mere fifteen seconds? Yes, I prayed without extending an ultimatum to God, if you’re looking for an application to our current theological discussion, but that’s not the point of this anecdote. I am mostly recording it in the spirit of uplifting literary entertainment and edification.

Half an hour later, I asked June to come up and please help me look, which she did gladly, but with equal lack of success. She finally concluded that the glasses couldn’t possibly be in that room, a sentiment with which I agreed in theory, but still resisted because it just didn’t square with the facts as I remembered them. I know I have memory lapses, but not to remember that I had actually left the room and placed the glasses somewhere else upstairs prior to depositing the harmonica holder on the library desk, would be beyond the possible. The very short time frame also ruled it out. So, the glasses must have totally vanished into nothingness, not a common occurrence, but, as Sherlock Holmes says, “When all the other alternatives have been eliminated, whatever remains, no matter how improbable it may be, must be the truth.” I would have to face the fact that we might have to rewrite some physical laws and metaphysical principles.

June went downstairs again to consider other options while I remained in the library to go through the same unsuccessful actions a fourth or fifth time hoping for a different outcome, a mark of the onset of insanity, I am told. Actually, I was not totally beside myself, but I was quite unhappy, and for the moment the entire focus of my life had converged into the single point of finding my glasses.  

June had barely made it back downstairs when she called up to me, “Found them!” I am tempted to write that I could hardly believe my ears, but that would be wanton hyperbole. Why would I not believe what my wife had told me? The glasses had been lying on the floor just a few feet from the staircase, and if there was a miracle, it was that neither of us had stepped on them and crushed them. Clearly, since I had prayed to find them, it was also an answer to my prayer, but again, that’s not my point (yet).

As I figure it, the glasses had become entangled in the laptop cords when I bunched them up to carry the computer downstairs, and they fell out once I had reached the bottom of the stairs. By that time “Elementary” was just about over. I filled out my sheet and then, to my surprise, realized that FSANF* Joel Jupp had just started a set of Christian songs on StreetJelly. I assume that other FSANF’s remember him. His program went over extremely well.

*****

Now, to return to the topic of our relationship to God. We had been looking at the statement by the fictional Emil to the effect that he no longer believed in God because God did not give him an instantaneous “miracle” when he asked for it.

In this entry I want to clarify the difference between miracles and magic. I find that in many disputes concerning the reality of miracles, the discussion is not really about miracles, but about whether Christians can perform magic which they just happen to call “prayer.” In that case the Christian is at a decided disadvantage because such a mix-up does not do justice to the nature of either a miracle or prayer. For purposes of this discussion a miracle is a direct action that God brings about in this world, according to his wisdom, sometimes using angels or human beings as his agents. (That’s not meant as a complete definition.) When God does a miracle, he neither breaks nor suspends the laws of nature, but, as their creator, his acts supersede them. Magic is something that human beings attempt to do. They may believe that if they meet the appropriate conditions, they can bring about changes in the world by manipulating spiritual forces. The conditions may include holding proper beliefs, being spiritually pure, undertaking the prescribed rituals, and directing yourself to the right spiritual entity or entities. For example, a Native American shaman may think that he knows the proper technique to drive the spirits that are causing an illness out of a person. Or, an American Christian may think that if he repeats the prayer recommended in a best-selling book on a regular basis, God will supply him with blessings that he would not receive otherwise. One may call it “prayer,” but the underlying concept is technically magic, viz. finding the best way to move God to grant your requests. If it doesn’t work out, it could be that you just haven’t fulfilled all of the conditions yet.

Now, my point right here is not to chastise the practice of what I’m calling magic under a biblical umbrella; I’ll do that again some day. My purpose is to call attention to the fact that the distinction between miracles and magic is often ignored. Patrick Nowell-Smith provided a good example of this mistake in an essay called “Miracles,” published in Hibbert Journal in 1950, and then reprinted in the famous, though no longer new, New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. by Flew and MacIntyre, 1955, pp. 243-53. He addressed the question of whether miracles are phenomena that can correctly be ascribed to a supernatural realm, which differs from the natural on the basis of whether it can according to scientific procedures. To help clarify his point, let us return to the biblical miracle I mentioned last time, in which Elijah, an unnamed widow, and her sun survived many months on a small, but ever-renewing amount of flour and oil that normally would have sufficed for only one meal. The fact that the woman used these portions to make bread and that all three people ate it every day is an observation in the natural realm. But we have no natural explanation for what caused this event. All that appears to be available to us is to call it a “miracle” and place it into the realm of the supernatural.

But, asks Nowell-Smith, can there be such a thing as a supernatural explanation? His answer is a decisive “no.” His case can be summarized in this way:

1. So-called miracles belong either to the natural order or to a supernatural order.

2. If they belong to the natural order, they can be understood scientifically, in which case they can be used as explanations for unusual natural events, but then they do not carry much more significance than other natural phenomena.

3. If they belong to a supernatural realm, they cannot be understood scientifically, in which case they cannot be used as explanations for natural events, no matter how unusual.

Nowell-Smith establishes this dilemma after clarifying that a scientific explanation must conform to natural laws, and that these laws have certain indispensable features. He says,

If it is a law, it must (a) be based on evidence; (b) be of a general type ‘Under such and such conditions, so and so will happen’; (c) be capable of testing in experience. And if it conforms to this specification, how does it differ from natural law? The supernatural seems to dissolve on the one hand into the natural and on the other into the inexplicable.

Having prepared you, I’m sure you are now already one step ahead of what I’m about to say. Nowell-Smith turns the essence of a miracle into an act of magic. He claims that, in order to understand a miracle as a type of explanation it must be no different from physical explanations. First of all, we must have evidence for it. (Thereby, he has actually placed himself into a vicious circle because the fundamental question is what would serve as evidence for a miracle.) Then he insists that we would have to be able to name a set of conditions that are necessary and sufficient to produce a miracle. Finally, the fact that those conditions are, indeed, correct can only be established by repeated experiential testing. Thus, returning to my illustration, we should be able to emulate the conditions for Elijah’s miracle and come up with a never-ending supply of flour and oil, just as he did. If we cannot do so, calling that scenario a “miracle” is merely resorting to a phrase that has no explanatory value and provides no meaningful insights. I trust you can see that Nowell-Smith is asking for nothing less than a recipe for magic. Appropriating his own words, you do “such-and-such” and “so and so will happen.” That’s magic, and it is far removed from the free actions of a personal God.

Back when Nowell-Smith was writing this paper, for the most part atheists still wrote coherent essays that were carefully analyzing difficult topics. Today’s new atheists may simply challenge us to authenticate the reality of a miracle for them by producing one for their inspection. It comes down to the same thing: They want us to do magic; they are unwilling to bow to the sovereignty of God, who may supply a miracle as it suits his greater plan. Then, again, if they did, they wouldn’t be atheists. However, we can point out to them that what we mean by a miracle is a direct intervention by God that does not occur on any predictable or repeatable plan, and that they are, consequently, attacking a straw man.

But is it a straw man? How many of us Christians are searching for a way of making God bless us more, by which we mean to give us certain things, some of them trivial, many of them very serious. The emphasis in the above sentence is on “making God bless,” viz. forcing his hand or impressing him in some way so that he will provide us with what we might not have received apart from our prayer. We cannot manipulate God. We should definitely pray to him and lay all of our needs, wants, desires, wishes, hopes, fantasies, problems, and what-nots before him. He knows them all already, and will not be surprised. Furthermore, he already knows what is best and will guide matters along that line, sometimes answering our prayers directly, sometimes seemingly ignoring them because he knows a lot more than we do. The latter situation can often be extremely painful for us, and may only be bearable by unreserved faith in him, by which I mean faith in him as the infinite God, not faith that he will eventually come around to our blueprint. But if we think of prayer as “Jesus-magic,” by which I mean thinking that we can influence God to guide our lives according to our own finite lights, we are not only misunderstanding our relationship to God, but we become high risks for eventual spiritual breakdown.

My mind is just going on and on, but I need to stop here and carry on next time. I'll also provide some means of breaking up the monotony of pure text.

*Former Student And Now Friend

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Wednesday, February 18th 2015

23:39

Relating to God, part 5

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: cold

Ducktor as frozen robinI could have sworn that I saw some robins about a month ago in a little thicket-surrounded gully next to where we parked for the walk-in clinic. One must, of course, take into account that I was there because of possible side effects from falling on my head. But I had heard that not all robins migrate south; if so, these birds would have constituted a good sample of those members of their species who did not know what was good for them. It’s been really cold, with night time low temperatures around the zero mark (F). Actually, the prediction is now -4°F for tonight and -7°F for tomorrow night. There has been regular snow off and on, though always in measured quantities, (e.g. 1-2 inches), but this winter weather, though still not quite as harsh as last year’s, is just continuing marching on in its stride. This coming Saturday is supposed to be the first day when it will get above freezing after about ten days of arctic (as far as I'm concerned) temperatures. I realize that some of my new Canadian acquaintances on StreetJelly would look at this temperature and consider whether to have an outside picnic, but it’s sufficiently cold for me to dream of Southern Colorado. I’m ready for spring.

Speaking of StreetJelly, I’m continuing with my sets on Thursday evenings at 9 pm EST (that’s 8 pm central, 7 pm mountain, 6 pm pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 2 am GMT, and 3 am German time). Here is the agenda for the next few weeks:

Day

Time

Headline

Bob Dylan

Feb. 19

9 pm

Bob Dylan Tunes

Feb. 26

9 pm

Funny, Serious, and Both

Mar. 5

9 pm

Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?

Mar. 12

9 pm

Chip-Kickin’ Songs

Mar. 19

9 pm

All Gospel

Mar. 26

9 pm

Judy Collins Tunes

Obviously, that schedule is subject to possible revision, not to mention the ever-present possibility of intervention by divine providence. June and I are doing pretty well in terms of our health, though I must say that at the moment I don’t feel nearly as well as I did last week.

*****

Speaking of the divine, here is the next (and last) of our “testimonies” concerning one person’s interaction with God. I’m picturing a guy making these statements, though either gender would fit. Since we’re probably going to spend more than one entry on this angle, let’s make it easy on ourselves and give him a name. “Emil” might be good; I don’t think I know any currently living person with that moniker. So, if your name should be Emil, please be assured that I did not have you in mind, and I’m sure you’re making this world a better place to live.

 

I like Christianity.  It’s a nice religion.  I’m glad it gets people to love others and to help them, and I’m sure that a lot of people find meaning in it.  My problem is that it doesn’t work.  

If Christianity were true, wouldn’t God be making sure than none of his children would have to suffer?—or at least that they would suffer less? I mean, even if for some reason there has to be some evil in the world, couldn’t God be doing at least a little better job?  

For example, he doesn’t seem to want to answer even my smallest prayers. The other day, I was on my way to church; you’d think God would want me there to worship him.  But no, my car was really low on gas [petrol], and I kept praying that the Lord would make it last to the next gas station.  That would have been such an easy thing for him to do, and I was really sincere.  I told God that if he would make the gas go all the way to the station, I would definitely believe in him and never, ever doubt his existence again.  But a mile from the station, the engine sputtered out, and so did my faith.

My greatest fear with regard to this vignette is that we can theoretically make it disappear with just a few proper words and never address the issues surrounding it. --- What this person is asking for is out of step with the nature of God as he has revealed himself to us.  We can’t (or shouldn’t) relate to him in this manner because getting us out of little fixes is not a job requirement for God. If I may lapse into anthropomorphisms, God does not reside on a big leather couch in heaven, his eyes glued to a huge bank of monitors, one for every person alive, ready to give each one of us instantly whatever we want. --- This response is true, and it appears to have settled the matter immediately. Emil needs to come to a better understanding of God. What else is there to say?

The reality is that, as immature and irresponsible Emil may be, his words may not be all that different from what you and I may have said to God as well at various points in our lives. Furthermore, atheist back benchers are shouting at us to adopt Emil’s understanding of God as correct and, thereby, to accept God’s non-existence. They are certainly right to this extent: Emil’s “God” does not exist. Still, haven’t we also lapsed into that kind of thinking at times? I’m tempted to say “all of us,” but I can’t know that. I do know that a lot of us have tried on some occasion or other to make similar non-thinking bargains with God.

An acquaintance of mine, who was an evangelist, once told the following story. As I recall, a number of years ago, he—let’s call him Jimmy—was the speaker for a youth retreat. As is usually the case at such occasions, there was some time on the schedule for relaxation and recreation, which was enhanced by the presence of a fairly large swimming pool. After taking care of a few other matters, Jimmy headed to the pool. When he was just about to plunge into the refreshing coolness, a teenaged girl stepped up to him and asserted in a rather confrontational manner: “I don’t believe in God any more. I lost my special ring in the pool, and I prayed that God would let me find it. We spent a lot of time looking for it, but it’s disappeared. So, I don’t think that there is a God.”

“Well, that’s good,” Jimmy replied, and dove into the water.

The girl was flabbergasted. Here was the speaker, the supposedly professional “God man,” telling her that it was a good thing that she had given up faith in God. Jimmy’s point, of course, was that the young lady had not given up belief in the biblical God, but in the fantasy of the Emilian servant-deity. God’s existence cannot be proven or disproven by whether he helps us to find lost trinkets. That’s not the God about whom Jimmy was preaching, and, for that matter, it’s not the God whom I worship. (Having made his point, Jimmy did continue his conversation with her, in case you’re wondering.)

Emil, the speaker in our vignette, seems to represent an extreme in scope and triviality. The young man did not remember to get gas when he had the opportunity, and now he was praying for a miracle akin to what God had done for Elijah and the widow in Zarepath, whose small amount of flour and oil had lasted the throughout a lengthy period of drought and famine (1 Kings 17:8-16). There’s a big difference, however. Elijah went there because God had sent him and had promised him that this woman would provide for him. For him it was a matter of complete trust in God; he was not putting God to the test. On the other hand, God had promised Emil neither that he would give him a personally tailored sign of his existence nor that he would keep his car running under prohibitive circumstances.

Not too long ago June and I were a part of a meeting of Christians who were getting together on the spur of the moment for mutual encouragement, sharing, and prayer. To me, it was a good illustration of how the Body of Christ should function. Such a meeting can generate a beautiful atmosphere, but in this case the ambience did not last very long. A young man at this meeting, who had asserted before that he was a Christian, declared that he could no longer believe in God because of all of the suffering he and his family were going through. They were, indeed, difficult issues. Thus, his story was a whole lot more poignant than Emil’s.

Still, the sharing part of the meeting went on in a positive spirit. We prayed, took a break, and then gathered for discussion. In light of our friend’s declaration, the person who had arranged for this get-together asked me to talk a little bit about suffering and God, and I did so gladly. At this juncture, the philosophical problem of evil becomes pertinent, of course, but if someone has lost his faith in God due to personal suffering, the philosophical issues are not necessarily the most crucial ones. Well, I went ahead as best I could and gave a short unscripted talk in which I emphasized that 1) we should not minimize the reality of evil and suffering in the world; 2) for a Christian the doubts arise from our inability at times to reconcile a biblically based view of God's love and goodness with the suffering we may undergo; and 3) that we must, therefore, understand our afflictions under the heading of what the Bible teaches us about human suffering, specifically, that it began with human disobedience to God, but that, according to the Bible, God uses our suffering for greater purposes. (For the sake of point I’m trying to make, it’s not necessary to expand on this statement right now; see my collection of thoughts on the problem of evil for more.)

The young man who had earlier asserted his lost faith responded to what I had said. But he did not refer to his personal circumstances. Instead, he asked me how, in light of my having mentioned the fallen state of human beings, I would make sense of the pain of animals over the long time span before there were any people. That response rather surprised me because it's a rather theoretical argument and not the kind of question people normally lose their faith over.

The truth is that I don’t have a good straight-forward answer to that question, and, to be honest, I don’t know how I could. It makes too many assumptions, including a commitment to one particular understanding of the origin of life, as well as the idea that an animal’s pain is no different from a human being’s suffering. Neither of those are necessarily safe assumptions. Our friend’s own suffering, though real, did not involve physical pain. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for eliminating as much pain and unhappiness from the lives of animals as is possible, but you can’t put their suffering on the same plane as that of human beings. Animals aren’t burdened with the mental aspect of suffering, which exacerbates that of humans with abstract thoughts concerning such things as the absence of hope for remediation. Animal suffering is in a different category from human suffering. And, to get back to the main point, it was his own issues that were causing him problems.

Our friend replied by telling me that in Hinduism there are many descriptions of how overwhelming the suffering of animals is. I said that whatever Hindus believed about animal suffering could not possibly have an impact on my understanding of suffering in the light of Christian teaching.

Can you see what was happening here? The discussion had begun with his assertion that, even though he had at one time considered himself to be a Christian, in the light of his personal suffering he could no longer believe in God as he had at one time. My talk had come from a Christian basis as well. But he was now drawing on world views that neither he nor I shared. The apparently deeply personal confession that he had volunteered was giving way to generic arguments on behalf of atheism that really were irrelevant to his situation. Whether the shift in his beliefs had begun with doubts about the reality of God due to his personal suffering, I cannot say. From where I sat, just as likely he may have encountered some atheists who had persuaded him of their point of view, which he then applied to his own situation. Regardless, by the time of our discussion that evening, he was far beyond disclosing a personal struggle, as it had appeared at first. He was not mourning a loss, but trying to establish the rabbit trails that frequently cross the landscape of today's so-called new atheists.

What I’m getting at is that, even though some people may say that they lost faith in God because of their suffering, even when it’s a whole lot more serious than not getting a gas tank miracle or supernatural help in finding a lost ring, there may be other currents running beneath the surface that are initially invisible. I’m not saying that such is always the case, but it can be, as it appeared to be the case in this instance.

To finish this short narration, at this point some of the other folks joined in and talked about their understanding of suffering based on their experience and their understanding of what the Bible teaches. And that is where such a conversation has to be. If I may adapt Marilyn McCord Adams’ phrase, the God of the Bible is not an omnipotent pleasure-maximizer. When the question is not the philosophical one on how to reconcile the attributes of God with the reality of evil, but the personal one of why God is letting me suffer, we have crossed over into the field of applied theology, and our answers must stem from the Bible. The non-Christian’s questions are not relevant if they do not actually touch on the beliefs that gave rise to the issue in the first place, and those come packaged with biblical concepts.

Let me mention one other point. I have asserted before that I don’t think it’s possible to draw up an objective chart of the degrees of suffering. “You don’t know how I feel” or “You can’t understand how much I’m suffering” may always be true statements, though that effect goes in both directions. I may not understand your suffering, but you may not understand mine either. Nevertheless, I will say this much on the situation that I have brought up. As I was looking around the circle of Christian friends that evening, I knew that every one of them either had suffered deeply at some time or was currently suffering. Moreover, even while I'm not forgetting about the caution I stated above, I can still state that the outward circumstances of their sufferings were more imposing than those that our friend had related. Was he more sensitive to suffering than the rest of us? I don’t know. If he was, it was apparently only his own suffering that made the difference, ignoring the fact (which he would have known) that others had not discarded their faith in the face of adversity. So, maybe he was more rational than the rest of us? I doubt it. Or, to go in the other direction, had he allowed himself to become influenced by the shallow arguments of the current atheistic rearguard and then used his personal circumstances to gain sympathy for his flight into unbelief? Again, I cannot say. I do know that God has not promised us a life in the present that is devoid of suffering, as much as we may wish for it.

To be continued …

 

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